• History of the Fine Arts: Visual Art
  • Introduction
  • Unit 1: The Ancient World
  • Unit 2: The Middle Ages
  • Unit 3: The Renaissance
  • Unit 4: The Enlightenment
  • Unit 5: The 19th Century
  • Unit 6: The 20th and 21st Century
  • Download
  • Translations
  • Introduction

    Why Study Art History? 

    This question is a great doorway into the world of art history. Although at first glance the topic may seem irrelevant to most real-world situations today, there are many good reasons to study the history of art. Beyond the potential for personal or cultural enlightenment (which is a worthy goal on its own), the study of art requires the development of valuable and applicable skills that, once mastered, are transferrable to any discipline, field, or industry. Before exploring this idea further, however, this question was posed to several art historians at a conference for museum professionals. Watch or read their responses below and see which ones are most meaningful to you.
    Watch on YouTube
    Video Transcript
    1. I think it's important that people look at art because we live in a visual world. And understanding, and looking at, and thinking about the way images communicate in all kinds of ways is important to being alive today.
    2. If one has heightened visual acumen, which you get from spending time looking at things, whether it's looking at newspaper photos closely, or looking at works in a museum, or looking at your surroundings, or birds more closely, that sort of attention to an environment makes you a better person. You are existing in a more aware, alert, present space.
    3. Sometimes people think that the only way of looking at art is going to museums and places like that. But maybe sometimes art is everywhere, in the street, if you look at architectural places, or everything. So you really don't need to go to a museum to see art. It could be anywhere, in a park, or looking at buildings, or going to a movie. So I think that's everyday life.
    4. It's all about noticing for me. It's all about trying to see beyond the first impression. People look at art. And they'd say, I like this. I don't like this. And they move on. They have predetermined notions. But if you can just stop and take a breath and look a little deeper at something, you can really start to notice some kind of detail that you might have not noticed before. And I think that skill applies to so many things in life aside from art, about being able just to slow down and be aware of actually where you're standing. And just even stop talking, and just maybe open up your ears, for example. There's so much detail around that you can absorb if you really just take a moment, and just let it come in, and listen.

    Transferrable Skills

    Imagine traveling to a place that you have never been before. What is the process that you use to successfully arrive? Perhaps you consult a map, road or street signs, or landmarks (like mountains or specific buildings). Perhaps you talk to someone that has made that same trip in the past to get some guidance and suggestions. In any case, the road you must navigate is highly visual. We are surrounded by visual stimuli that, as humans, we have learned to interpret in order to survive. Although we may not always call it "art," the skills that we use are basically the same as those that we develop in examining art throughout history.

    We must learn to:

    1. Break down a complex image into its fundamental elements
    2. Make decisions about which of those elements are more or less important
    3. Draw and support a conclusion about what the combination of those elements means to us.

    Once mastered, this ability strengthens our critical thinking, problem-solving, and communication, fundamental components to successfully navigating the evermore complex world. So, while this is a text that explores art history on its surface, it is really a text about developing valuable transferrable skills. As you explore this content, be sure not to overlook this important focus. Each of these artworks are worth your time and attention, but avoid losing the true perspective of what you are actually gaining by studying them. 

    Sincere and Responsible CuriosityChallenging ContentThe Three-Tier Framework to Understanding ArtTier 1: ContentTier 2: ContextTier 3: Concept
    Previous Citation(s)
    Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "Why art matters (why look at art?)," in Smarthistory, November 25, 2015, accessed May 17, 2023, https://smarthistory.org/why-look-at-art/

    This content is provided to you freely by BYU Open Learning Network.

    Access it online or download it at https://open.byu.edu/history_of_the_fine_arts_music/Introduction.